What sort of country is England ? Readers of this newspaper should have a pretty good idea.
It is a multicultural nation whose people are increasingly liberal on everything from homosexuality to race. Both government and opposition are broadly socially democratic. Our national dish is chicken tikka masala. We are a largely middle- class nation which shops at IKEA, sends its children to university, cooks Jamie Oliver recipes and takes weekend breaks in European cities.
According to Julian Baggini, all of this is rubbish. He should know. Baggini is himself a liberal, university- educated, croissant- chomping sort of chap. He writes philosophy books, and columns for the Guardian. This book is about what happened when – bravely, interestingly, and with fascinating results – he decided to break free of his comfort zone and go in search of what the real England is like.
To do this, Baggini decides to spend six months living in the most ‘typical’ English place he can find. He asks a demographic profiling organisation to find him the postcode area with the closest match of household types to the country as a whole. They come up with S66, on the outskirts of Rotherham , Yorkshire . This, then, is ‘Everytown.’
It’s a book that could have been patronising and heartless, but Baggini turns out to be a sensitive observer who takes people and places on their own terms. He is also good at examining his own prejudices and fears. ‘To find unusual that which was completely normal said a lot about how far removed from the typical life of my compatriots and upbringing I had become’, he writes. ‘But, of course, I was not alone. This world is rarely written about because people in the national media and the arts don’t live here and don’t come here, even if they come from here. To them, “getting real” means the extreme poverty of the inner cities. The mundanity of the typical life passes them by.’
So what is ‘normal’? It turns out that Baggini’s England is still a working class nation, in values if not always in income. People watch soaps, read Dan Brown novels, go to the footie at weekends and have little time for the kind of ‘improving’ high art or culture that their ‘betters’ believe they should embrace.
It is also a largely monocultural country – only 8% of the population is from an ethnic minority, and half of them live in the capital city. It values toleration and integration over nebulous ‘multiculturalism’, believes in family values and fair play – not necessarily the same thing as following the rules – and regards authority with scepticism. Food is regarded as fuel, which is why it is usually so bad – and it is still pretty bad outside the organic inner city enclaves. Shopping confers status, and two weeks on the beach in Mallorca is still by far the most popular holiday.
All of these things are dissected, and often defended, by Baggini, every time with thoughtful arguments that make you confront your own prejudices. He highlights the paradoxes too. We bemoan ‘the decline of a closely- knit working and local community’, he writes, but what would the alternative be? As people’s horizons widen they move away, they try new things and they no longer want to live in Everytown. ‘If we really wanted to preserve traditional community, it is clear what we should do’ he suggests: ‘stop people getting degrees.’
If Baggini is right, then England is an unambitious country, full of reasonably hard- working, sarcastic, warmhearted people, who value community and friendship and have little time for ideas. But what comes across most strongly, all the way through this book, is what a tiny, cut- off elite the urban liberal classes are. These are the people who make up the political and the media establishments, yet on everything from politics to menus Baggini shows they are adrift – ‘removed from the mainstream culture’ and consequently frightened by it.
They are rootless, and it’s roots that define Everytown, and which Baggini both admires and resists. ‘If ever I was tempted to see my more individualistic lifestyle as somehow superior, I should remember that it is in fact parasitic on these more settled communities’, he writes. ‘After all, if no one put down roots the forest of society would simply be washed away.’